The Sire Records founder, who discovered and/or signed a Who’s Who of Rock & Roll, including the Ramones, Dead Boys, Talking Heads, Replacements, Smiths, and more… has a new memoir, Siren Song, but his run is far from over
One could make the argument that Seymour Stein is quite possibly the music industry big-wig who has traversed the longest timeline of the industry’s 20th-century heyday – certainly the one who is still here to tell the tale. In his new biography, Siren Song (St. Martins Press), Stein’s life seemingly begins with his love of music. He lays out his 1940s-50s youth, learning about music in Brooklyn, featuring funny, mixed culture tales of outwardly kosher Jews scarfing up Italian food on the sly from the other predominant immigrant half of his neighborhood. This led to an innate understanding of the cultural mash-ups that happen in America that are most beautifully expressed through our musical inventions.
From strutting into the Billboard magazine offices as an R&B-obsessed 13-year old demanding an internship; then living and working in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the legendary King Records where he hung out with James Brown; to watching the British Invasion happen; moving back to the Big Apple to form Sire Records; early hits with Climax Blues Band and Fleetwood Mac; releasing Lenny Kaye’s ever-influential Nuggets compilation; essentially introducing the punk era to the wider industry, and eventually going earthquake with hits, most dominantly with Madonna – his is an unparalleled A&R run.
The roster of acts Stein discovered and/or signed is stunning: The Ramones, Talking Heads, Dead Boys, Flamin’ Groovies, Pretenders, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, English Beat, Replacements, the Smiths, the Cure, Madonna, k.d. lang, the Cult. Ice-T, Ministry, Ofra Haza, Aphex Twin, Avalanches, Regina Spektor, Von Bondies, and many, many more. Featuring constant praise for those who helped him along the way, to his never-ending travels all over the world looking for another great song, it’s an exciting, informative, and inspiring read.
And yes, like any music industry bigwig autobiography, what’s sometimes most fascinating is what’s not revealed. While frequently admitting to his own vices, Stein shies away from dishing too hard on his artists’ personal problems. There are requisite anecdotes of wild parties, drugs, etc., but don’t go in expecting this to be a litany of TVs thrown out windows and orgy stories. Stein still works a bit in the industry, and you can feel his long-developed (and increasingly rare in our share-everything era) habit of respecting others’ privacy. But beyond that, there is a genuine focus on the music, and how it was found, produced, and distributed.
Again, this is not to say Stein doesn’t clear the air. He openly discusses his homosexuality, his troublesome family relationships, and the horrific murder of his wife, Linda Stein. And, as per many music biz bios, this book doesn’t go too far into the weeds about contractual details and messy legal battles – for obvious and arguably frustrating reasons. Stein saves most of his business ire for a few industry moguls, rather than any lingering spats with artists.
Within the book and in person, Stein thinks and relates in terms of the way record labels are owned by larger ones, and the interrelationships and identities of labels, which was so much more noticeably important in the pre-digital era, but is still important today. It might behoove bands to remember the tales he tells if they plan on moving past posting demos on Soundcloud. Contracts are still a thing.
Nonetheless, during the two recent Siren Song book-release events I attended in NYC, I saw in Stein a man who is first and foremost a huge music fanatic with an amazing memory and willing self-effacement. One interviewer asked him about the first song that really moved him in life, “The Tennessee Waltz,” and he instantly started tearing up upon hearing it and trying to explain why it meant so much to him. And he is refreshingly quick to poo-poo the usual drab notions that “There’s nothing good anymore, man.” He still aims to travel and find new bands, his belief in the power of music never wavers.
Even at 76, Stein is a hard man to track down. I got to ask him a few quick questions before the book release event at Rough Trade in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, before he was off the next day to Europe or God knows where, hyping the book and looking for new tunes.
As time rolls on, right next to the omnipresence of Madonna, Stein’s primary legacy is his early embrace of punk. He signed many of the seminal acts of the original punk era: Ramones, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Dead Boys, Talking Heads, DMZ, the Saints, Radio Birdman, Undertones, Rezillos, Plastic Bertrand, and more. He even claims responsibility for the term “new wave.” So for that and this here site, I focused on his punk acts, but there is so much more. If you consider yourself a fan of rock’n’roll or pop music since the end of the Second World War, you have to read Siren Song.
PKM: The recent Ramones box sets on Rhino are amazing. I remember the Plundering the Vaults CD reissues in the ‘90s too… I noticed the Saints and Radio Birdman didn’t really come up in the book. How did you find those Australian bands?
Seymour Stein: Well I looked all over for bands. The Saints, actually I heard the record first. I couldn’t believe it was on EMI, because Capitol turned down the Beatles not once, but twice. I called (singer) Chris Bailey up, and I said, “Look guys, you’ll be the first band I ever signed that I never met. I promise I’ll come down in the next few months to Australia and see you.” And I kept my word, and when I got there, I found Radio Birdman too. What a great band. That Rob (Younger) is a genius. And the thing is, both of those bands were inducted early on into the Australian Music Hall of Fame. That makes me really proud.
That poster contains five of my all-time favorite albums, and all from one year, 1978. Was it hard to hype the Aussie bands?
Seymour Stein: Yeah, it was harder because people over here couldn’t see them live much, the bands couldn’t get over here as much. Like, Richard Hell put on a great live show. The Dead Boys were fabulous! And the Ramones, that goes without saying. Talking Heads were in a league all their own. That helps, of course.
PKM: I’m from Cleveland originally, so I have to ask if you have a crazy Dead Boys story that didn’t make it into the book?
Seymour Stein: Well yeah. Remember that horrible, filthy toilet at CBGBs? They wrote across the wall right above it, “Seymour Stein, you finally signed a great band – Dead Boys.” If I was ever glad I was born a man. My God, I don’t know how any woman used that bathroom!
PKM: Did you ever find yourself in Cleveland?
Seymour Stein: Are you kidding? With the Dead Boys, yeah. But I was also one of the main people in getting Cleveland involved with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Alan Freed was one of my idols. I knew him, and I’m still very friendly with his son, Lance. And I was just in Cleveland for the dinner for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I go there all the time. I personally knew three governors of Ohio.
PKM: So obviously the Ramones are a huge part of the book. But I also noticed their second album, Leave Home, doesn’t get mentioned in the book. I would’ve thought there’d be some “the difficult second album” stories, why it didn’t sell, etc., that kind of thing.
Seymour Stein: I expected the Ramones to explode, but they never did, and it was heartbreaking. And though I was happy with the success they had in England and Europe, they never overcame the fact that early on, they were playing these really big theaters all over England, then they came back and played really small clubs. It was heartbreaking.
PKM: Did you ever sit in on recording sessions with them?
Seymour Stein: Oh yeah. Well, I would kind of drop in. I never got involved in production, though. I always thought they were in good hands. There were certain incidents with some bands where I had to interfere a little.
PKM: Not even with Phil Spector?
Seymour Stein: Certainly not with Phil Spector. He’s a good friend of mine. I like him. I still like him, you know.
PKM: You say you came up with the term “new wave.”
Seymour Stein: Well, people say that, but that term was around a bit. I only came up with using it because I thought “punk” would hurt some of my bands, particularly Talking Heads. There was nothing really “punk” about them. I mean the Sex Pistols were great, I loved the Clash. But that term just became so off limits or whatever.
At the Rough Trade event, they had been playing Sire Records bands in the store, and right then the 1973 Sire hit “Hocus Pocus” by Focus came on in the store, and Seymour Stein looked up and said, “Ah yes, Focus, my first million seller.”
That song, with its yodeling and prog-y rhythm shifts – and only two years before the Ramones’ debut – quickly recalled the breadth of styles Stein could sift through. As he makes note of throughout the book, it’s always all about the song. And that seemed as good a place as any to let the man calm his pipes for a second before taking questions from the fans for the next hour-plus.